top of page

How to Write a Twist

Today I'm going to be talking about twists. Specifically how to write movie twists. There will be spoilers for Ocean's 11, Oceans 12, Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, The Usual Suspects, most CSI episodes, Tailor Tinker Soldier Spy, and Knives Out.

The most important rule maybe is that the audience has all the information that they need and none of the information that would feel like a cheat. It's important to remember that a Twist can't just be something that's unexpected, it also has to be satisfying. If a character was trying to find buried treasure from the entire movie and then when they finally unearth the buried treasure a dinosaur falls from the sky and lands on them that would not be very satisfying even if it was an unexpected ending.

If we look at the 2001 film Ocean's Eleven, the heist is dependent on the secret vault footage not actually being live, but being a pre-taped recording. We saw the fake casino vault earlier in the film during the guys practice, so when it is revealed to us at the end that they were filming in the fake fault it feels like it makes sense. The movie re-used a plot device from earlier. This was not the case in the film's sequel Ocean's Twelve. In that film, the twist is that the heist was never actually the heist we were watching. The heist happened during a kerfuffle on the train in a scene that we did not actually see earlier in the movie at all. There's no real reveal because this was all new information, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat before establishing that the hat is empty.

The second rule I have for a proper twist is going to be a little bit more controversial. I don't find the twist satisfying when the setup is too contained. In a classic whodunit story, there are a limited number of suspects and so at any point the audience is expected to suspect any character. Obviously meeting the real killer for the first time at the very end of a film would not be satisfying. The killer needs to be foreshadowed. However, if we have suspected the character who is revealed to be the murderer as a murderer, then something is lost in any emotional payoff.

In the Agatha Christie books-turned-recent-movies Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, we have a closed environment with about a dozen murder suspects in each story. This means there is at least one murderer and we are asked to assume everyone or anyone is a murderer. Now fans of these stories might say that the ending reveals aren't necessarily about who did it but why they did it. I would counter that by saying the “why” revelations are usually told and not seen, making them less emotionally impactful. In any case, any audience member will have correctly identified the murderer(s) before the big reveal because the audience suspected every character at some point.

A similar murder-mystery that gets a lot of praise for it’s ending is The Usual Suspects. Again, the audience is to try to figure out which of the five suspects is Keyser Soze. But because at any point we think any of the guys are Keyser Soze, including Kevin Spacey, the final revelation is dampened. Now this story tried to hide the audience from suspecting Kevin Spacey's character by having him be the Storyteller. It blows me away that this twist is as popular as it is because it seems like the formula used for a lot of Law & Order or CSI plot points.

In fact, one of my first short films, The Bowling Ball, we used the “Storyteller did it” as our twist ending. We were only high school freshmen, but felt that the plot twist connected to the plot since the story itself was about unreliable storytellers. I'm not patting myself on the back because of this twist but rather pointing out that this twist is plenty graspable for teenagers strung out on Mountain Dew. It's not that big of a deal.

One way out of this whodunnit conundrum is by having there be multiple bad guys. This shows up in at least a few murder mysteries and inspired dramas. In Tailor Tinker Soldier Spy, Smiley is charged with finding the Spy and given four suspects. As it turns out, there was more than one so the second is meant to be a surprise twist. I think this works if the audience actually believes the reveal of the first person is cathartic enough for a (false) climax. Unfortunately, this false final showdown/revelation doesn't involve the main stars, so we distrust it. In Tailor Tinker Soldier Spy, the meta-awareness that Colin Firth is second billing foreshadows he is the primary antagonist. We know he’s only in a supporting role, but if we're 90% through a movie and Colin Firth hasn't had an impactful acting moment, you should know it's coming.

Firth = 2nd billing = likely antagonist

I call this the Top Billing Problem. The “billing” in movies is the order that the cast is put in for promotional materials and there is an insane amount of negotiation that goes into every decision including the size of the actor's face on the movie poster, if they’re left align, if their name comes first, if they're not one of the stars in terms of runtime, do they get the last spot? This is where you'll see names paired with “and” or a “with” in quotes.

Unfortunately, this billing negotiation can spoil twists. It happened in another movie that I thought got a lot of praise for its twist: Knives Out. With all of the Knives Out promotional materials, we see Chris Evans right behind Daniel Craig--who is of course our lead. Chris Evans' character Ransom is initially entirely dismissed as a suspect which would be ridiculous because, again, it's Chris Evans. The story goes to great pains to layout the false-murderer and Chris puts on the front of an ally in the story, but we know the big acting moment is coming because he got such a prominent billing spot. In a way, it would have been a bigger twist had Michael Shannon been the big bad guy. This isn’t something writers can necessarily solve themselves, but it’s something to at least be aware of.

Next week, I’ll get into other twist advice (OR WILL I???), such as how to get the audience asking the wrong question.

2 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page